|Regions with significant populations|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Tuvans, Tofalar, Soyots, several other Turkic peoples, Mongols|
The name Tsaatan, which means ‘those who have reindeer’ in the Mongolian language, were originally Tuvinian reindeer herders.
Dukhan language (SIL International dkh), an endangered Turkic variety spoken by approximately five hundred people in the Tsagaan-Nuur county of the Khövsgöl region of northern Mongolia. Dukhan belongs to the Taiga subgroup of Sayan Turkic (Tuvan, Tofa).
Originally from across the border in what is now Tuva Republic of Russia,the Dukha are one of the last groups of nomadic reindeer herders in the world. But as the reindeer populations shrink, only about 40 families continue the tradition today.
The reasons of settlement in Northern Mongolia
Tuva became independent in 1921, when Mongolia gained its independence. At that time, the reindeer herders were able to freely cross the border between Tuva and Mongolia. However, when Tuva was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1944, the border was closed. In 1944, Russia was involved in World War II. So that they fled from Tuva to settle in Mongolia mainly because of following reasons:
- Since the border zone was their original territory, they had good trade relationships with the Mongolian herders in the steppes.
- There were food shortages in the Soviet Union due to the World War II.
- Domestic animals were requisitioned by the Soviet government during the war.
- Many schoolchildren’s lives were taken by the spread of disease.
- People were afraid of losing their domestic animals due to the collectivization campaign.
At first, the Mongolian government repeatedly deported them back to Tuva. In 1956 the government finally gave them Mongolian citizenship and resettled them at Tsagaan Nuur Lake on the Shishigt River.
Dukha way of life
Dukhas have a very different way of living compared to other people in the world; they live the way people lived 10,000 years ago. The Dukha's sense of community is lived rather than abstract and is structured around the reindeer. The reindeer and the Dukha are dependent on one another. Some Dukha say that if the reindeer disappear, so too will their cultures. The reindeer are domesticated in the literal sense of belonging to the household. In many ways they are treated like family and shown respect. All the community's chores and activities are centered around the care and feeding of their reindeer. Dukha communities on the taiga are usually a group of tents of two to seven households that move camp to find optimum grazing for the reindeer. Herding tasks are shared amongst the camp with children at a young age learning to care for the reindeer and keeping them safe. The girls and younger women do the milking and the making of yogurt, cheese, and milk tea. Young men and women and elders help with herding activities in the camp. A few of the men stay with the reindeer in the winter months, living in the open air with their herds to protect them from wolves and other predators. The men also make and repair the reindeer saddles, carts, and their hunting tools. Since they rarely kill a reindeer, they supplement their diet of reindeer milk products with wild animals from the forest.
The use and management of reindeer
Dukha raise their deer primarily for milk production. Reindeer milk, reindeer yoghurt and reindeer cheese are the staples of the Dukha diet. Only a small amount of reindeer are actually slaughtered during the year for meat and pelts. The most important function of the reindeer is also as a means of transportation. Because taiga area is typically hilly and covered with forest, reindeer are not used for pulling sledges, but for riding and loading. They are ridden and loaded for daily grazing, hunting, the collection of firewood, seasonal migrations, visiting relatives and friends, and traveling to the sum for shopping and trade. A reindeer is ridden with a 1.5 m long thin stick in the right hand to use as a whip. A rider gets on a tree stump and jumps onto the reindeer from the left side with the stick in the left hand, which is switched to the right hand once the rider is mounted  To make use of a reindeer for riding, first the dongor (two-year-old reindeer) are trained. Adults are too heavy for dongor, so it is usually the children’s job to train them. Adults ride on hoodai (three-year-old reindeer) or older ones. They regularly ride on zari (castrated males). Special training is not necessary to train the reindeer as pack animals. The male reindeer usually carry loads weighing about 40 kg, while females carry up to 30 kg. Reindeer skin is used for making winter coats. Bags, mats for traveling, and shoes are also made from the skin. Materials for shoes are taken from the skin on the shin. Reindeer antlers are ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine and have been supplied to China since 1975. During the summer, the horns are cut off. The reindeer’s two front legs are tied to one hind leg to make the animal fall. They cut the antlers with a small saw. In fact, because reindeer cannot properly regulate their body temperature when they lose their antlers and easily become exhausted, they usually do not cut the antlers of pregnant female reindeer.
Seasonal migration and residential groups
Dukha today continue their nomadic life, moving from one place to another without establishing any settlements throughout the year. A residential group consisting of several families is called olal-lal (meaning ’them’ in the Tuva language). They usually refer to a specific group by the name of a representative member. Families of the same olal-lal set up tents close to one another (within a few kilometers) and collaborate in livestock herding.
Dukha moves to the summer camp in the middle of June. Its altitude is 2300 m and there are fresh breezes. Owing to the cold climate throughout the year, open grasslands spread across the high valley. Reindeer cannot handle the heat well, so they must be pastured in such high plains in the summer.
The beginning of August is the time for Dukha families to move down to different camp sites to spend the fall season. When it begins to snow in mid-September, since there are no insects, the reindeer regain their vigor and the young male reindeer are castrated. From the end of September to early October is mating season for reindeer. The gestation period for a reindeer is about seven months.
Dukha usually settle down in the deep forest at an altitude of about 1800 m where they can avoid the frigid winds. At winter camp, people remain in one area for a month at the longest, and then move on to another place, especially when there are wolves near the herding area. Snow is not an obstacle for reindeer to eat moss because they can dig the snow with their hooves and find moss easily. Several residential groups band together and set out for otor (the herding of livestock by young men in distant areas). During otor, the reindeer are free to move about and can better eat moss and grass.
Groups cannot travel quickly to spring camps because they must accompany the pregnant female reindeer. This is the time when weather tends to become harsh, with strong winds, so they settle in a place that shelters them from severe winds. Reindeer give birth between late April and mid-May.
Dukha lives in yurts made primarily of birch bark that resembled the tepees of Native-Americans in their appearance. A large yurt could be made of bark from up to 32 trees; a medium sized yurt from the bark of 23-25 trees. An opening of 2–3 meters in height allows access into the yurt, where a bag that houses the guardian spirits of a shaman rests in the rear. On the right side of the yurt, the Dukha family will keep its hunting equipment, saddles, tools and utensils. A traditional Dukha yurt will not have a bed, but rather a skin covering on the ground, upon which the family sleeps. A stove sits in the middle of the yurt.
Dukha dress is characterized by hats in the style of the Khalkh people, and wide deels (traditional Mongolian overcoats). They wear strong and warm boots fabricated from the hides and sinew of their reindeer. These boots are known for their quality and are very expensive.
Belief and Religion
The Dukha believe that their ancestors’ ghosts live on in the forest as animals that give guidance to the living, according to a 2004 National Geographic report. Dukha people practise Shamanism, religion that is based on nature worship. Shamanistic religion, as such, has been the subject of numerous studies, but the way Shaman worship is practiced among Dukha people differs from other Shamanistic religions in the region; its special regimes . Shaman worship among the Tsaatan people represents the oldest variant of Shamanism practiced by Mongolian nomads. Not only do they worship their Shaman, called 'Boo', but they have knowledge of many mystical holy readings, as well, and use many different treatises in their daily life, such as those for hunting, for calling or averting the rain, and such.
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- Photos of Dukha family and their lifestyle By Hamid Sardar
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- Business Insider:Meet Mongolian Reindeer Herders Fighting to Save Their Way of Life By Harrison Jacobs, May 23, 2014.
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- We are Dukha: This is the Way of Our People; The Totem People's Preservation Project